Webcast Recap

In the third in a series based on the recently published The Iran Primer, contributors Kevan Harris and Suzanne Maloney discussed the current state of Iran's economy, the utility of the sanctions regime, and the Iranian bazaar and labor movement.

On February 18, 2011, the Middle East Program hosted an event, "Iran Primer III: Iran's Economy/ Sanctions Regime" with Harris, doctoral candidate in sociology, Johns Hopkins University, and Maloney, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution. Robin Wright, USIP-Wilson Center Distinguished Scholar, moderated the event. The Iran Primer offers a comprehensive but concise overview of Iran's politics, economy, military, foreign policy, and nuclear program. Organized thematically, the book provides top-level briefings by fifty experts on Iran. It provides hard factual information for ready reference, thoughtful analysis, and context.

Maloney stated that although the economy is a central factor in Iranian development, current discussions of Iran tend to sideline its economic matters and focus mainly on Iran's nuclear, religious, and ideological issues. She offered an overview of Iran's economic development and spoke of post-revolutionary urbanization, infrastructure, and mobility improvements, noting the shift from 1980s factionalism to an acceptance of privatization. Maloney also discussed Iran's subsidy reform program and how its implementation has been largely a smooth process while its effects may trigger economic disruption.

Noting the recent uprisings in the Middle East, Maloney discussed that there might be a shift in focus to democracy in the region. She stated that sanctions against Iran would likely become a more visible and viable U.S. foreign policy option due to a lack of desire for military involvement in a region where so many upheavals are now taking place. Maloney also commented that sanctions have not produced any real results in the way of deterring Iran, and that there are no built-in rewards for confidence-building measures.

Harris began by describing the tendency of the international community to view the Middle East as fundamentally different from other regions, what is often called "Middle East exceptionalism." In noting the importance of social analysis as the Middle East undergoes historical changes, Harris described social change in Iran through the lens of the bazaar, or "marketplace," where the convergence of political and social discussions traditionally takes place between merchants and laborers. International trade, he noted, has weakened this tradition in the bazaar.

In addition to the changes in the bazaar, Harris discussed the labor movement and how its social structure has changed. Iran, like any other developing country, he noted, is not an exceptional case in terms of its existing formal and informal sectors. He discussed the recent strikes in the industrial sector and worker grievances. Harris also addressed the ability of Tunisians and Egyptians to change the circumstances that have dominated their countries for decades through youth movements, which have mobilized disaffected and poor communities. He concluded by noting that hope comes through change and that field research with social analysis, as opposed to research "from afar," is the most reliable way to understand the current state of affairs.

By Sara Girgis, Middle East Program
Haleh Esfandiari, Middle East Program


  • Kevan Harris

    doctoral candidate in sociology, Johns Hopkins University
  • Suzanne Maloney

    Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution
  • Robin Wright

    Robin Wright

    USIP-Wilson Center Distinguished Fellow